The social structure that Wharton lashed at and criticized in her writing was known, in a historical sense, as the “Edwardian Era,” a time period framed by the death of Queen Victoria of England in 1901, subsequent ascension of Edward VII to the throne, and (though it is debated) the start and end of the First World War.
This was a class-based society, a world where the distinctions and barriers between the rich and the poor were as present a force as cell phones, the internet, and social media are today, where immigrants and dreamers from around the world flocked to the United States in search of new lives, of the hopes and promises of the “American dream.” These people made their journeys on ships such as the Titanic and the Lusitania, legendary examples of technological and engineering innovations of the time, and of the faith (and arrogance) of man’s achievements.
This was a period of transition, a period where the advent of domestic and international travel, made possible by the industries of steel and the railroad, gave way to the spread of knowledge and ideas. In America, it was also a time of reconstruction, of the making sense and understanding of the consequences of The Civil War, the limitations of and conflicts between the working class and the elite, and of the establishment of, and growing interest in education and social reform.
This was also an age of imperialism. In Europe, much focus had been put on “expansion,” on the colonization and owning of foreign lands, almost always at the cost and expense of indigenous peoples, and usually in the name of religion. An irony of Wharton’s career is that she criticized these negative effects of society, yet had faith in and supported the French imperialist agenda.
As an artist, Wharton was also able to look outside the sphere of contemporary American society, identify the things that both fueled and disabled it, and, through her writing, attempted to bring the readers of her novels to the realization that the structures of high society were only as strong and superficial as the iron hull of the Titanic, and emphasized the more lasting impressions and efforts of artistic-motivated, individual social contributions.